In the words of a comedic band I didn’t want to admit were aging as I beheld their greying, mutton chop-less visages at the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, “The city is alive, the city is expanding, living in the city can be demanding.” I’m sure having travelled from the sheep-shearing, Hobbit-roving bliss of New Zealand to all the major cities of the United States, Flight of the Conchords delivers this message with the same heartfelt sincerity that every city dweller employs when they stick their head out a bedroom window and yell, “SHUT UP!” It’s such a commonplace notion that it’s hardly worth stating, but cities are loud and generally don’t come equipped with James Stewart’s euphonic pianist and soprano neighbors in Rear Window. On top of this corroboratory fact, city noise always amalgamates into the same nerve-wracking din no matter how disparate the individual components nor how varied the population size.
At 8 o’clock this morning, I was jostled from a sickbed completely surrounded by flu remedies (including DayQuil, NyQuil, Ricola, Emergen-C, and Sex and the City season 6) by a mariachi album set to full blast, a barbershop quartet of dogs who might have been hyperventilating through their barks, and a car alarm that could easily alert its owner from the middle of the sea. This early symphony–coupled with a daily opus of ever-celebratory fireworks, 2am basketball games, and rival ice cream trucks distinguishable only by their repeated children’s song of choice as they circle the block at least eight times a day–may be specific to my new neighborhood, but downtown Los Angeles is not alone in its incessant emanation of sound. Nor are LA’s outer boroughs, such as Culver City where my boyfriend’s next-door neighbors are constantly regaling the whole neighborhood with drunken arguments at the nightly parties they seem to throw and the entire family downstairs might be diagnosed with Tourette’s.
In a much smaller city on the opposite side of the country, the noise may come in a different flavor but barrages your eardrums with the same torrential force. During my last year in Savannah, Georgia, I moved from a quiet, woodside dormitory where the introverted inhabitants avoided eye contact at all costs, let alone uttered a peep, into an apartment that might as well have doubled as a palace compared to the cubby hole I occupy today. The only downside to Heaven on Montgomery was that it was on Montgomery–one of the busiest streets in town, especially when your block resided in “downtown.” Rather than illegal fireworks and ever-festive mariachi bands, this corner of Montgomery and Alice hosted a cast of noise makers that verify the zaniness John Berendt immortalized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
First, there was the “Ey” Man, an older gentleman consistently dressed in what the 1960s would have deemed “the nines” who walked down Montgomery looking pleasantly dapper and intermittently calling, “Ey… Ey… Ey…” Then there was the late night serenader: a young man prone to slowly pacing up and down the street after dark, singing the latest R&B hits at the top of his lungs as if wooing the city itself or simply shouting to hear his voice over headphones. Along with these and several other vocal individuals like an infamously impolite mother, there was a weekly congregation of people who spent hours cackling at the tops of their lungs like a coven of witches while ironically mingling in a church parking lot. And we can’t forget the honk-happy populace eager to lay their entire body weight on the horn at the slightest hint of inconvenience, a far cry from the Oregonians who take extreme offense if you timidly tap the horn by accident.
Immersion in this incessant cacophony from the east to the west can make a girl miss her childhood home in the mountains, where yards that contemporary suburban developers couldn’t fathom separated everyone from even the slightest noises their neighbors might make and any hillbillies keen on disrupting the peace with a blaring horn were hindered by the shoddiness of their rusting trucks. After leaving this quiet respite at the age of nine, you’d think spending the majority of my life amidst the endless hubbub of sirens, babbling passerby, screeching tires, and Savannah’s garrulous night birds, I’d have grown fond or at least accustomed to the soundtrack of city life. But lately if there’s no Enya playlist to drown out the racket, all I can do refrain from leering out my window at the ice cream man is wistfully dream about pattering rain showers, ocean tides, or a future ranch in Montana complete with a team of middle aged corgis to keep me quiet company.
When two people who love each other fight, it’s one of the most piffling spectacles around. Testosterone prevails, prompting inner gorillas to puff out their chests, and nerves are frayed, making it hard to understand what the argument’s even about through all the Jimmy Stewart stammering. Teeth grit as the couple tries to refrain from making statements they can’t rescind and ultimately, if the pair is still smitten when the blows begin to cease, somebody caves and they’re left wondering what the last hour and a half was worth.
When two people who don’t love each other anymore fight, however, it’s an entirely different can of beans. Especially if one party is plagued by bipolar disorder and the other is ultra-hypersensitive.
There was a time in my childhood when I regularly beheld the savage evidence that love was fleeing my household in increments, and as a result I pledge to the Tao of Separation when I say that sometimes divorce is a wonderful thing.
But at the age of thirteen, years after the screaming tournaments had dissipated, peace had become commonplace, and my parents were well adjusted to their separate lives, homes, and dating arenas, my father mistook my disapproval of his new girlfriend for resurfacing divorce pangs, and my younger sister and I were sent off to divorce camp.
Feeling the resentment Hansel and Gretel must have felt when their woodcutter father listened to his second wife and sent them packing, I was furious about the arrangement. After all, I was in the prime of the raging preteens (a likely cause of the aversion to the new lady friend, but with Dad’s concurrence after their break up, I still maintain that she was neurotic). In those dark ages I was teeming with the only year-long hellishness my parents would ever have to endure from their children, and chartered the histrionic teenage slogan “everything’s unjust.” Attending night classes at a nearby high school for counseling on a bygone facet of life that I’d been rejoicing for years certainly fell into the “unjust” category. I’m not positive what my sister thought about the whole ordeal (she was still in the stage of indifferent agreement, probably to avoid my preteen wrath), but she trudged into Westview High School’s empty, after-hours hallways with me just the same: going up against my intimidatingly muscular father and his obduracy was not an option.
I don’t remember how long divorce camp lasted each night or how many times we attended it. In fact, I don’t remember much of divorce camp at all, as if self-induced amnesia wiped my adolescent slate clean. That, or I just wasn’t paying any attention. But while the course curriculum and the face of our male counselor slip my mind, I remember the atmosphere with clarity. Divorce camp is a sorrowful place, attended by kids who probably resisted their parents’ decisions to partake with the same obstinacy I displayed but who probably needed a compassionate guide to lead them out of the throes of misunderstanding. By surveying the circle that my sister and I had become a part of, it was apparent that all the children in attendance, including one of the popular girls from my own school district who I was startled to recognize, were conflicted about the ordeal their parents had brought upon them, and while my sister and I sat through the lessons with apathy clear on our faces, it was humbling to witness the effects divorce has on a child when it’s dealt with incautiously.
Even though they wear the red badge of divorce, my parents are exceptionally gifted at the job they ushered into their lives when I was born. They certainly weren’t one of those calendar-counting couples, eager to have kids since they played “house” in their juvenescence (like… eh hem… me), but they arose to the task of nurturing and educating their children with such a natural finesse that besides the year of frenetic hormones, my sister and have always been confident, good-natured individuals with unyielding love for the people who raised us. It was with this same open-dialogue and compassion my parents always administered that they went about familiarizing us with the end of their marital union, and because of their attention to detail, I’ve never been able to relate to the children who blame themselves for their parents separation. For me, divorce was a welcome relief. Sure, it meant moving back and forth between parents every two weeks for the next nine years, enormous laundry basket and textbook-filled backpack bursting at the seams in tow, but that only produced incredibly efficient packing skills.
Still and all, observing the despondent faces of my fellow counseling detainees, under bright, interrogational fluorescents no less, revealed to my kid-self that divorce is very often not such a clean affair, and there are bound to be emotional casualties beyond those of the legal settlement parties.
So I suppose the moral of this disquisition goes something like this: should you have kids now, or should you acquire them somewhere along the line (either unexpectedly or pre-planned since a matronly childhood), try to maintain an honest discourse with them–and not just about life-altering issues like divorce, but about all facets of life. They may be small and naturally incur your irrepressible baby-talk in the early years, but having been a small, tow-headed child at one point, I clearly remember that even little kids can absorb new information if you take the time to teach them. Besides, if an open relationship means saving your kids from belittling experiences like the extraneous divorce camp your neurotic girlfriend recommends, then why wouldn’t you engage in a little confab with your baby-kin every now and then?